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A Quality Post ... but not for WoWs. [repasted from quora]

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Source: https://www.quora.com/Why-would-cavalry-charge-in-wedge-formation-What-if-the-point-riders-were-killed-Why-not-slam-into-the-infantry-all-at-once

 

This is not written by me. I am only repasting it.

 

Repasted and formatted for reading convenience:

Why would cavalry charge in wedge formation? What if the point riders were killed? Why not slam into the infantry all at once?

Eric Lowe
Eric Lowe, Historical fencing instructor and military history student.
 

This question brings up one of my favorite examples of the intersection between martial arts and battlefield tactics.

 

I’m going to answer this question from a classics perspective (specifically Hellenistic) since that’s the era of European shock cavalry I best understand. I know enough about medieval cavalry fighting, though, to feel pretty confident that the underlying principles are not changed by any “knightly” technological developments.

 

The questioner’s point of curiosity is this: why should we analogize a body of men and horses facing another body of men (with or without horses) to an armor-piercing bullet striking armor, a wedge splitting a log, or other such common analogies? Is that actually a good analogy?

 

After all, wedges and bullets penetrate through the principle of surface pressure: they take the exact same force as a differently shaped object with the same amount of mass, and apply it over a small area rather than a wide area.

 

But men are not molecules. At the end of the day, if it actually comes down to personal fighting, the guy at the head of the wedge must slay the man in front of him. How is he assisted in this endeavor by having the two guys to his left and right behind him? Wouldn’t he be helped more if they were actually at his side, able to use their lances to kill? If the cavalry is going to physically shoulder aside enemy infantry by forcing their horses through gaps between men, what does it matter whether the guys to left and right start a bit further back?

 

This is an excellent intuition, and an excellent question. Men are not like molecules. Yet, men have charged in wedge and even rhomboid formations. Why?

 

First, let us address the rectangular or line formation. The questioner’s intuition is indeed correct that, when direct personal application of weapons is wanted, the rectangular or line formation places the greatest number of cavalry troopers in position to employ their weapons and minimizes the chances that the opposing troops can overwhelm those troopers actively engaged in personal combat. If you actually want your troopers to kill enemy dudes front to front, line is best. There is a reason that cavalry have charged in line of battle since antiquity, and that many eminent cavalry commanders have used it.

main-qimg-255c44c7701d33cf35b34d04a0ba8bb3

That said, you don’t always want your troopers to kill enemy dudes front to front. In fact, you frequently don’t.

 

The ideal scenario for a cavalry charge, as with an infantry charge, is that the enemy loses his nerve and individual men begin to act as individual men, thus breaking his formation and providing lots of random gaps between which your troopers can ride, wounding fleeing men in the back in the finest tradition of aristocratic combat.

 

But how to get them to flee? Well, essentially this comes down to a game of chicken. The infantry knows, intellectually, that if they just stay huddled together in a genuinely solid mass, the cavalry will not continue their charge into physical contact[1]. The cavalry knows this too. But the infantry’s monkey brains are still monkey brains, and seeing even just a few hundred horses thundering at you tends to chemically override what you know intellectually. The filming of the movie Waterloo is a great modern example of this: it was filmed with literally thousands of extras on foot and on horse, most of them actual soldiers in the Soviet army. In the scenes where massed cavalry charges the “British” infantry in formation to receive a charge, you can actually see the infantry physically moving across the battlefield as the infantry instinctively shies away from the charging cavalry - whom they know will not crash into them, no matter what, because it’s just a movie. Now imagine if you know that those horsemen will actually kill you given just half a chance, and you can begin to see how chemically-overriding this must have been.

 

The closer the cavalry get, the more likely they are to win the game of chicken. However - and this is key - physically colliding front to front usually means the infantry have won. So the cavalry also knows it must break off before physically colliding with infantry who have stood their ground.

 

And this is where the wedge and rhombus formations come in.

 

Asclepiodotus puts it this way:

It appears that the Thessalians were the first to use the rhomboid formation for their squadrons in cavalry fighting, and this with great success both in retreat and in attack, that they might not be thrown into disorder, since they were able to wheel in any direction.

It is said that the Scythians and Thracians invented the wedge formation, and that later the Macedonians used it, since they considered it more practical than the square formation; for the front of the wedge formation is narrow, as in the rhomboid, and only one‑half as wide, and this made it easiest for them to break through, as well as brought the leaders in front of the rest, while wheeling was thus easier than in the square formation, since all have their eyes fixed on the single squadron-commander, as is the case also in the flight of cranes.

Let’s unpack that a bit.

 

Recall that the closer a cavalry squadron can get to its target before being forced to break off, the scarier it seems and the more likely it is to win the game of chicken that we refer to with the fancy-sounding military term of “shock.” From this, it should be apparent that the quicker the entire squadron can turn, the closer they can get and still have room to avoid the catastrophic fate of physically colliding with a charge target that refused to blink.

 

For a squadron deployed in line, turning is relatively slow. This is due to the communications lag inherent in the formation: the guy who is actually in charge of making the decision to turn can only be in one spot, usually one of the forward corners for reasons that will become apparent. Well, nobody in the squadron can actually see him except for the dudes immediately adjacent. If he decides it’s time to turn, he can only signal that by actually moving his horse. That will be seen by the next trooper over, who will begin to turn his horse at the appropriate time, which will be seen by the next trooper over, and the whole maneuver eventually ripples down the line (if the commander was at the center of the squadron, this ripple effect would almost certainly tangle the squadron as the center of the leading edge of the rectangle suddenly decides to change directions).

 

If the formation is properly spaced and pointed, however - either like a triangle or like a diamond - then everybody can just follow the dude in front. The reaction speed of the formation gets faster … which, in turn, means that the formation can get closer to the target before it needs to break off. The following diagrams are helpful (these aren’t mine, and have a few problems, but they get the main point across):

 

main-qimg-b88e4cca689f7add7d1d50d2fa3932bf

 

Note that the leader of a rectangle is not always placed in the center, but the basic idea still applies. Also, that’s not a rhombus formation, it’s a wedge.

main-qimg-09701d88510f308c86b43a5bd7b86f1f

This works if everybody in the front rank knows when to turn. But information doesn’t get passed down the line instantaneously, so communications lag must be built into the timing of the maneuver.

main-qimg-067c640801e96f04a1c3f4e07af9ff41

Less communications lag means a closer charge.

 

A rhombus or diamond formation has the advantage of having a potential point man in each of the four directions, which theoretically makes the squadron more maneuverable. Essentially, every corner man has about a 90 degree arc in which everyone knows he’s the leader. The squadron is moving forward, say, and the forward corner man decides to wheel 90 degrees to the right. People see that, realize the new direction, and simply turn their attention to the right flank corner man as the new leader, and the whole diamond simply starts riding to the right without actually wheeling (or at least, not very much). This doesn’t happen instantaneously, but the communications lag is significantly less than in other formations and the whole formation “corners” much more tightly.

 

So that’s the upside of the rhombus compared to the wedge or the line. The downsides of the rhombus as compared to the wedge are two: it is a physically fatter formation on the battlefield (it takes up more frontage), and because it only sort of has a “front,” it’s harder to guarantee that your best troopers are in the front ranks where they can be best employed.

The “penetration” power of the wedge is often misstated, in my opinion, so let’s focus in on that.

 

Again, men are not molecules. Cavalry does sometimes literally shove through resisting armed men, but whether they do so has little to do with whether their formation superficially resembles a wedge penetrating a piece of wood from the air. The trooper who fought his way into the enemy ranks could have done so just as well in line as in wedge, and if in line, his rank-mates would have pushed through and begun to widen the hole he made just as well. On the level of individual men killing each other, wedge formation offers no advantages. In fact, if a wedge makes contact with enemy infantry and must actually engage in physical fighting (i.e., the enemy doesn’t break ranks and let the cavalry ride through), it will quickly “squash” into a line anyway. The other troopers aren’t going to stand back and wait for the one dude at the tip of the wedge to win or lose his fight, after all; they’re going to crowd forward to help. This is one reason why cavalry deploys in line if it expects to actually fight; it’s going to happen anyway.

 

Where wedge formation does help penetration is penetrating betweenformations. There’s a reason that Asclepiodotus associates the wedge with the Macedonians. All three of Alexander the Great’s great battlefield victories were won the same way: Alexander managed to get the enemy’s battle line to separate, leaving a gap between units. Once that happened, Alexander rushed his heavy cavalry through the gap to attack the enemy from behind. The Macedonian cavalry penetrated the enemy battle line, but in the sense of riding between units, not in the sense of smashing into enemy infantry formed in line and slaughtering through them like an armor piercing bullet. The actual penetration of the battle line involves little to no fighting. Men are not molecules.

 

To pull this off, the cavalry must be able to fit through a relatively narrow gap between units (the gap is, after all, probably small enough that the enemy doesn’t really realize what’s happened to his line) and responsive enough to move quickly and steer as the exact placement of the gap changes (the enemy infantry will respond to the suddenly charging heavy cavalry, after all). Wedge is perfect for this sort of thing, and also allows you to line the forward edge of the wedge (because it has a definite forward edge) with your best fighters to help ensure that the wedge doesn’t take casualties if its edges get into scrapes as well as to give you the best chance of winning a fight if you actually do have to squash the wedge against an enemy line and start slugging it out.

But again, it’s not gaps between men in the same unit that wedge penetrates. It’s gaps between units.

 

So we’ve got essentially two levels of combat going on here: there’s individual cavalry troopers physically fighting individual enemies with physical weaponry, and there’s the psychological game of chicken that comprises “cavalry shock.”

 

Line is best for the physical combat, because physical combat depends upon having as many troopers as possible physically employing their weapons, preferably close enough to each other to offer support. All formations will devolve into a line anyway, if physical combat is at all protracted.

 

But line is the slowest to turn, and thus the worst at being able to inflict shock without engaging in protracted physical combat (which cavalry rarely wants to do, not even medieval heavy cavalry). Rhombus is fastest to turn and thus best at inflicting shock, but wedge is better at slipping behind enemies through gaps in their battle line and offers somewhat better fighting ability should physical combat be required.

 

Footnote:

[1] I don’t want to oversell this point - cavalry can and have charged through pretty small gaps between men. There’s a reason that the “receive a charge” formation for ancient infantry as well as Napoleonic infantry was literally shoulder to shoulder. I don’t want to undersell it either, though - so long as the infantry actually does remain consistently shoulder to shoulder, rank upon rank, the cavalry actually does break off.

 

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Beta Tester
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I would like to share this because even though I had played Total War Arena, I had no concept nor knowledge of the intricacies of historical cavalry vs. infantry fighting at the level of detail presented in the post before I read it.

 

Most people who play WoWs will never know of things such as the use of flash-protection equipment, what "general quarters" actually mean, just like I would have never known the purpose of a cavalry charge could, counter-intuitively, be to not impact into infantry, simply by playing TW:A.

 

What we see in Total War Arena is complete lack of human reaction, lack of realism in that sense, and thus lacking significant depth to its gameplay context. What we see on the forums are people complaining how OP heavy artillery is, how inflexible and how discouraging the actual gameplay is. Because WG purposefully designed it to be stripped of all essence but mechanical "hard counters" and sharp logic, to displease players, to extort players. Compared to the actual intricacies of realistic mass infantry combat, heavy artillery as presented in game probably wouldn't come close in the forefront of priorities to be presented, yet because of the need of WG styled hemmed-in game logic and "variety", all realism is cast aside for the "preferred" realism of the higher-ups.

 

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I have, in the past, written on ways of how TW:A could have presented itself, to convey what is accurate, atmospheric and immersive as best as it is could, and not wrongly portray or trivialize what it could not. I have not done this even for WoWs, due to discretion purposes. But the intent was always there. WoWs, just like TW:A, is a gross underrepresentation of its context and under-utilization in game form. While I understand WG must progress slowly at their own pace, I cannot help but still remember that once upon a time, such informative and knowledgeable posts have appeared on WoWs forums as well, to much benefit of the general populace.

 

And even if not written by people themselves, some have still gone through the trouble of bringing in information, articles and contextual writings from external sources to share on the forums, going to the lengths of even translating them if need, or adding in their own illustrations and diagrams to aid in comprehension ... all in desire to contribute to the community, the atmosphere, and the overall immersion of the game in whole.

 

Yet nowadays, most of the discussion on forums has devolved into the likes of whining and fussing over trivialized in-game mechanics, instead of on the context themselves, in a general interest and hobby. I see this as yet another sign of the very life being beaten out of WoWs, into nothing but a husk of procedures of play and pay and frustrate. 

 

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Part of the reason sports have their appeal, is the social element of it. Not just playing with other people, but also living out life with other people, utilizing the sport as a hobby, engaging in its tradition as well as its activity, discussing with other people both on that sport and other things while resting, building bonds and living life. While higher end sports also have prestige and finesse elements to it, there is excellence in both playing it, and excellence in engaging with it. Country clubs, sports clubs and memberships exist for a reason ... and not just the kind which cheat you on gym membership, those are the over-commercialized kind, the kind of which WoWs and TW:A is ... but a husk of the true thing, now existing only in some form of weak reminiscence of actual excellence and perfection. Devoid of life, of depth, of community and human spirit.

 

Is WoWs the kind of thing that can exist in a "club"? No, it can barely exist in a bar. 

 

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It is just saddening to be abruptly reminded of such things. Perhaps the only solace I can rely on is that the people who truly have their lives integrated with, devoted to, and live in knowledge and awareness of the contexts in question, do not need nor know of either WoWs or TW:A. They know enough to understand what pitiful imitations these are. So they stay away. Or if not, are unceremoniously bullied away anyways ... by the lack of life, by the lack of knowledge, by the lack of passion and acceptance, on the game forums and in the game community ... and the lack of acknowledgement from WG itself, on their seriousness and passion that will sometimes shine through, but unfortunately, mostly, to no avail.

 

Too little, too late, too shy. Too few. May god take pity on this quality poster initiative. For no human will.

 

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